As a social media community manager for major brands, I spend much of my time battling trolls. No, I don’t mean the ones in Tolkien’s Middle-earth — it’s not quite that epic. In fact, it’s a fairly mundane part of the job and par for the course when it comes to community management. In Internet slang, a troll is an individual who posts inflammatory or off-topic messages in an online community, discussion forum, chat room, blog, etc., with the intention of provoking other community members or the community managers into an emotional response or otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.
The phenomenon is not a new one. Harvard academic and early authority on virtual communities Judith Donath addressed the threat of internet trolls back in 1999:
“Trolls can be costly in several ways. A troll can disrupt the discussion on a newsgroup, disseminate bad advice, and damage the feeling of trust in the newsgroup community. Furthermore, in a group that has become sensitized to trolling — where the rate of deception is high — many honestly naïve questions may be quickly rejected as trollings. This can be quite off-putting to the new user who upon venturing a first posting is immediately bombarded with angry accusations. Even if the accusation is unfounded, being branded a troll is quite damaging to one’s online reputation.”
Clearly, this phenomenon is a major concern for companies trying to do business online while fostering positive sentiment and brand perception.
So why does trolling happen? The answer, very simply, is that there are a lot of bored and mean-spirited individuals out there for whom the internet provides a safe and anonymous way to harass other people or even companies without real-life repercussions. Internet trolls conjure the image of some seedy, shady reclusive character sitting in front of his computer all day and getting his kicks out of messing with other people online. Many of them are probably what Urban Dictionary describes as a “webtrovert”, someone who is a shy introvert in real life, but turns into a full-on extroverted party animal on Internet forums and social sites.
As community managers, the way we deal with trolls is a zero tolerance policy. Allowing organic uncensored conversations to take place is usually an integral part of growing an online community (even a branded one) and gaining community members’ trust. Trolls should not be tolerated because they are not there to win the brand’s trust or engage with the brand out of genuine interest, let alone transverse the sales funnel. They are just there to wreak havoc. So we delete their comments as soon as they get posted and we ban them from the community.
Then you have the opposite of trolls. We don’t have a mythical Tolkienesque name for these or an established term at all (to my knowledge) so we’ll just call them ‘brand freaks’. Why ‘freaks’? Because they more than just ‘like’ the brand (to use Facebook lingo) — their lives virtually seem to revolve around the brand. Much like trolls, freaks spend a lot of their free time engaging in the community, but instead of leaving inflammatory or provocative comments and riling people up, freaks have something positive to say about everything the brand posts and enjoy giving other community members tips constantly.
In essence, these characters are the famous ‘influencers’ that online marketers have been buzzing about so much in the last couple years. Influencers in so far as they are brimming with enthusiasm for the brand and practically can’t shut up about it, which means they are using peer-to-peer influence to spread word about the brand. Ideally, that’s how it plays out, except that in reality a lot of these brand freaks have very small networks and their influence reach is actually pretty small. Like many of the trolls, they are also webtroverts.
So between the trolls and freaks making up for so much of the engagement and conversations in branded online communities, many social media marketing professionals have started wondering if only “crazy people” are commenting about brands in social media. In other words, is it just these quirky sociological specimens with limitless free time and a compulsion to chatter incessantly about the brand, or are there also enough regular people willing to be engaged and generate conversions?
Luckily a recent article on Social Media Today offers some hopeful stats.